Matt C. Abbott
February 21, 2011
Dying with Jesus and Mary
By Matt C. Abbott

I never had the pleasure of meeting Claudia Avignone, but I know she was a woman of deep faith. That faith, however, was tested when she was diagnosed with brain cancer in late 2009. The mother of three sons suffered greatly the last several months of her life, and yet she also experienced mystical phenomena that left her family with a profound peace when she died on August 15, 2010.

The following is a moving letter, written by the Avignone family, of Claudia's final days in this world. Many thanks to David Avignone for permitting me to reprint the letter in this column.

    In this joyous Christmas season, we'd like to offer a belated thank you for the prayers and support that you have given to Claudia and our family. It was truly a gift from God to have such spiritual support. It wasn't until the day Claudia died that we truly understood the benefit of all your prayers. We were all praying for a miracle, but what Claudia received was much better than anyone could imagine.

    August 15, the day Claudia passed, was the feast day of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. It is one of the most important days of celebration of the Christian Faith. We believe that Our Blessed Mother's body was taken to heaven along with her soul. It is a day of much celebration. Little did we appreciate or understand the real meaning behind this feast day until this year.

    The real test of suffering began on December 18 (Mario's birthday) with the removal of some thought-to-be benign tumors from Claudia's brain. From that day on, her life would never be the same. The tumor(s) ended up being malignant. Struggling to walk and talk, Claudia began an uphill battle to regain her physical strength. It took weeks just to be able to get up from a chair on her own. In addition to coming to terms with the diagnosis of the cancer, her spiritual strength weakened dramatically.

    Even though she read the Bible non-stop the day of her surgery, she was in a spiritual desert after her surgery. She did not understand why she was given so much suffering to endure. She even told us that we would have to do the praying for her, because she just did not have the will and strength to do so herself. We certainly did pray... and we also called on the rest of our faith community to pray as well. We even began a perpetual fast that lasted until Easter. Nearly 100 people fasted at least one day for Claudia, with many fasting several days throughout the four months! Furthermore, we can't even count the number of novenas, mass intentions, and rosaries that were prayed for her, many by complete strangers to Claudia.

    All the calls on heaven paid off in a very special way on February 5. That night, while asleep, Claudia received a special visit from Our Blessed Mother Mary. After one-and-a-half months of suffering the effects of her surgery and radiation, Claudia received a gift from God that most of us never get in our lifetime. Mary, cloaked with a lavender colored (purple) mantle, appeared to Claudia during the night. Claudia described the deep peace that accompanied Mary as something she had never felt before. Plus, Claudia could describe in vivid detail the fabric Mary was wearing, which was very similar to chiffon. Not only that, but Claudia said there was an unmistakable lavender fragrance. That would be enough for most people, but Our Blessed Mother even spoke to Claudia. She said, 'Everything is going to be OK.' Amazing!

    Claudia rarely spoke of Mary often in the home. When she described to us what happened the next day, Claudia referred to Mary as Our Blessed Mother. That alone told us that something spiritual really happened, especially considering she had never referred to Mary with this name before with us. Plus, as tears flowed from her eyes, she described Mary as 'beautiful.' As affectionate as Claudia was, she never described anyone as 'beautiful,' so we knew something very special happened. Additionally, the exact same day Mary visited Claudia, a priest friend had offered Claudia up in prayer at the church in France where Mary appeared to St. Catherine Laboure and gave her the Miraculous Medal. We do not believe this is just a coincidence.

    Over the next several months, Claudia suffered through the cancer and the treatments to fight it (doctors were not able to identify the primary location of the cancer). Claudia, as well as the rest of us, wondered what Mary meant when she said 'Everything is going to be OK.' We kept praying for a physical healing and thought that Mary's words foreshadowed a successful fight against the cancer. Little did we know that the words meant something much different.

    On August 9, 2010, we noticed Claudia getting weak. We were concerned, but took her in for her radiation treatment that day. Once we were done, the new nurse (who happened to be named Mary) met us in the lobby and asked us to take Claudia straight to the ER at Palos Community Hospital. We figured it would be best to wait to take her to Northwestern the next morning, but after considering that it was Mary telling us, we decided to take her into Palos Hospital just next door.

    Claudia spent other days in the hospital earlier in the summer for symptoms very similar to what she had been experiencing this day, so we had no idea this would be her final days with us. Over the next five days, Claudia's condition deteriorated in the hospital. By Wednesday, she was not able to speak (even though she was still aware and conscious). Claudia received an Anointing of the Sick on this day for spiritual strength, and on Thursday we realized that it was indeed very serious; that she may not survive this latest setback. In fact, doctors said, 'It is just a matter of time.'

    Saturday was a memorable day. It started off with hope, because Claudia was eating and drinking a bit. Out-of-town family and close friends came to see, visit, and pray with us. At one point in the early afternoon, Claudia looked straight up toward the ceiling. She became fixated on something that could not be seen by the rest of those present. For approximately three-to-five minutes Claudia stopped responding to us all together. We believe she saw some sort of vision. Once the vision was over, Claudia came back to her previous condition, but was not willing to eat or drink anymore.

    At this time, we decided to give her a break from eating and allowed one of the nurses to come give her a sponge bath. This nurse was ecstatic once we gave her the go-ahead to wash her. We thought it was odd, considering it was at the end of her shift and we did not recall Claudia receiving any type of bathing the previous five days in the hospital. Approximately 20 to 30 minutes later, we returned to the room, only to find Claudia completely paralyzed from head to toe, with no ability to move... even her eyes. We did not understand what happened, considering just minutes before she was able to move, eat and drink. It became clear, though, that something spiritual happened during the 'washing' and that the vision had something to do with her new condition.

    We tried hard to prepare her for departure from Earth from this time on. We spent much time talking to her, just hoping that she was able to hear and comprehend us. It wasn't until late Saturday evening when we realized that she could still hear us. While we were praying the Rosary in the room on Saturday evening, one noticeable tear fell from her eye. That tear spoke thousands of words to us that night. It meant so much to us, especially to know that she was praying with us. We hope she felt the love of our family as we prayed.

    Sunday, August 15, was a new day. Even though it was the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, it was not a joyful day at Palos Community Hospital. We continued to pray, with the Divine Mercy Chaplet in song looping in the background, and which had been playing for the previous four or five days (Claudia at one point earlier in the year said she liked that prayer in song, so we decided to have it playing non-stop in the room).

    We then decided to organize another time for the Rosary on Sunday night at 7:30. Eleven people were in the room that evening (including Claudia). We began with Ave Maria on CD, and then prayed the Glorious mysteries of the Rosary that includes the mystery of the Assumption of Mary. Again, during the praying of this rosary, Claudia shed another tear! What a gift it was for us, but praying the Rosary that evening was one of the saddest and most sorrowful points in our lives. Once it ended, we then prayed The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, prayed some other prayers and then Mario read the Gospel Reading from the Mass of the Assumption, Luke (1:39-56).

    We then gave Claudia a small piece of Holy Eucharist as Holy Viaticum (nourishment for her journey home) and played Amazing Grace on CD. Again, the tears of sorrow flowed from all of us as we told her not to be afraid and that we loved her. We then switched to the prayers for the dying, which are very helpful for the soul of a dying person. Lastly, we decided to honor Mary on her feast day with songs of praise. We all stood and began to sing Immaculate Mary. We are not great singers, but we sang with our hearts filled with a mother's love.

    By the time the song neared the end, Claudia's breathing was very, very slow. We continued to sing while we said our final good-byes to Claudia. We can only imagine the words Claudia wanted to say to us as she departed. As she took her last breath, we finished Immaculate Mary and presented her to heaven with the song, 'Here I Am Lord.' We sang that song with such joy and peace, knowing Claudia had just left for a much better place. We sang the song surrounding Claudia's body in one big hug. On such a feast day, it was only fitting for Jesus to call Claudia home at the exact moment we honor his mother.

    The amount of joy in that room dried our tears of sorrow and transformed all of us. We immediately began to ponder what had just happened. We were wondering how we could have such joy in our hearts in such a difficult time. We had just witnessed the passing of Claudia and we were not crying, at least like we were prior. We believe we had just witnessed some sort of miracle. Not only was that Sunday the feast day of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, it was also the last day of the 54 Day Rosary Novena some friends/family were praying.

    Many of you knew about the Novena through our posting on the Caring Bridge website on June 22, the last posting until August 15. We were praying for a healing of body and soul. God heard our prayers and answered with an outpouring of His Love and Mercy. In fact, a close friend had a vision of Mary at Claudia's bedside holding her left hand just three or four days prior. We believe Mary escorted Claudia straight to her Son that special evening, and left us with graces that helped us cope with Claudia's passing with a profound peace and joy. The last hour of Claudia's life on Earth gives the Hail Mary so much more meaning.

    You may have noticed at the wake that Claudia was draped in a lavender color shawl in her casket and the lavender rose in her hand. This was to honor Our Blessed Mother and to, in some way, thank her for the spiritual gifts she gave to Claudia and Claudia's family and friends.

    There are several untold spiritual stories during Claudia's eight months of physical suffering and last few days in the hospital; in addition, many questions we will never know the answers to in regards to God's mercy for Claudia in her last hours on Earth. What we do know is that your prayers and sacrifices paid off in a special way on August 15. None of us could imagine or plan for what happened that August night. It was miraculous and better than any physical healing God could have for Claudia. We believe her healing was much more glorious. Just weeks ago, a couple close friends claimed that Claudia communicated through them in their dream, just three days apart. One claimed that Claudia said, 'Why are [they] crying; I am with Jesus now.'

    Even though Claudia is not able to care for us anymore with her many skills and acts of charity, she is now able to take care of us in a much better way as an intercessor. We look forward to the many fruits of her suffering, just knowing God will allow her to help guide us as we wait to be reunited with her in Heaven. So, please continue to keep her in your prayers. Again, your prayers for her while she was suffering allowed her to leave the physical world in a special way, but your prayers for her as she begins her journey in eternal life is even more important. It was such a blessing for you to join us in calling on Heaven. Your friendship and love is appreciated. We look forward to sharing even more stories and details with you in person. Thank you!

    May God bless you,

    Larry, Mario, David, Mark [Avignone]

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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